Residents of the Brazilian city of Itatiaiuçu, who live near a high-risk iron ore tailings dam owned by ArcelorMittal, are anxiously watching the construction of a wall by the company to contain a potential massive mudflow in the event of a dam breach.
Despite the company’s claims of removing residents from the high-risk area and already compensating hundreds of families, fear is a daily reality for the population, a situation that is expected to persist until at least September 2025, when the construction of the containment wall is scheduled to be completed.
The risks in Itatiaiuçu draw attention to about 30 other dams in Brazil that lack stability guarantees, raising concerns about potential disasters following two major collapses in Minas Gerais. In 2015, in Mariana, and in 2019, in Brumadinho, hundreds of people died when mining waste from Samarco and Vale destroyed communities and affected rivers and forests.Built in 1987 and decommissioned since 2012, the ArcelorMittal dam that served the Serra Azul Mine currently contains over 5 million cubic meters of iron ore tailings, according to data from the National Mining Agency (ANM).
The structure is also under embargo for not having obtained stability certification, a requirement for the 7% of the 453 mining dams in Brazil that are subject to the National Policy on Dam Safety (PNSB) and are obligated to provide the document.
“We live in great fear, a lot of anguish, being under a dam that has a level 3 risk of breaching,” said Wilson Vieira de Souza, a local trader, referring to the highest risk level for dams as classified by ANM.
“Many people have fallen ill, many people have become sick, many people have already died, and we are still here fighting against this mining company that has caused so much harm to us in this community”, Souza told Reuters.The trader was interviewed by Reuters in the district of Pinheiros, where the ongoing construction of the containment wall is located.
The area is filled with signs indicating escape routes in case of a potential breach.The previous tragedies are still fresh in the memory of the residents of Minas Gerais, a state historically divided between the economic benefits brought by mining companies and the impacts of this activity on the environment and local communities.”If (the dam) bursts up there, we’ll be stranded down here.
The mud won’t let us leave, it breaks asphalt, it breaks everything, just like in Brumadinho, everything burst, and we are stuck in that situation,” said Milton Teixeira Reis, a retired resident of Pinheiros.Another major concern for authorities in the event of a breach is the possibility of contamination of tributaries that flow into the Manso River, which supplies 40% of the water for the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte, according to Marina Amaral Ferreira, Secretary of the Environment of the city of Rio Manso.Itatiaiuçu is about 75 km away from the state capital.
“The measures we see to minimize the environmental impact that can be caused by the possible breach would be the construction of a containment barrier, which the mining company is already building, but in my view, and the view of the population, progress is still very slow,” Ferreira said.Contacted by Reuters, ArcelorMittal stated that in 2019 it took precautionary measures, relocating all residents within the Self-Salvation Zone (ZAS) to ensure their safety.According to the company, of the 58 families that were temporarily relocated to houses rented by the company, 41 are now in permanent residences. By the end of January, 606 families had reached individual compensation agreements with the company.
“There are no residents at risk,” the company stated in an email response, adding that the dam is monitored 24 hours a day.The ongoing construction of the containment wall, according to ArcelorMittal, will be able to contain all the tailings in the event of a potential breach and is scheduled to be completed in September 2025, which will allow the start of dam decommissioning works.
The company also stated that it is fulfilling the agreement reached with the affected commission and with the federal and state public prosecutors, covering criteria for housing compensations, economic and agricultural activities, moral damages, and part of the collective damages.